Language Without Borders


Words are hard.

“Megan, how do you call this?”

My Italian friend reaches up and touches the long rectangular flap attached to the inside roof of his car.  I pause and think for a moment. My eyes recognize the object and I comprehend its function— but beyond these visual cues I am incapable of answering his question definitively.  I have a complete mental block.

“Uhh…a sun shade? Or a sun blocker? No I think actually it’s a sun visor,” I start to speak more quickly, unconsciously providing a play-by-play of what’s taking place in my mind. “No wait, maybe sun visor is only used for a kind of hat. Actually I think it’s a sun shade. Or maybe it really is a visor….”

I finally shut up and try to blank out the question before reflecting upon it afresh. Meanwhile, the conversation has moved on to other things. I try and join in on the new topic (namely, where to go for supper), but in my mind I’m unable to leave the initial subject in peace. As the only native English speaker in the car, I have failed in my duty to provide a response to a very simple translation question.

For the better, our language keeps evolving.

For the better,  language keeps evolving.

These days we find ourselves living in worlds of patched together languages. Over time, certain nouns, verbs and adjectives from other languages creep into our own because their meaning has no tight equivalent in English. Like culaccino or schadenfreude. And while some foreign words can enhance our already rich vocabulary, often while learning a new language other ones unwittingly wallpaper over perfectly suitable English words.

Example: Back in 1994 I found myself in the checkout lane of a French Carrefour supermarket with an American friend. We had placed the divider between our groceries and the person’s behind us, and as we waited for our turn to pay, my friend Jess suddenly pointed at the stick on the conveyor belt.

What were these called before? Chips? Crisps? Whatever the case, this sounds way better.

What were these called before? Chips? Crisps? Whatever the case, this sounds way better.

“What does that usually say back at home?” she asked, pointing to the words Client Suivant.  I paused and thought about it, trying to conjure the image of an item that I had gazed at hundreds of times while standing in the checkout line at Stop & Shop. “Client Savant” sounded perfectly fitting– but as for the precise words in English, suddenly I couldn’t be sure.

“Uhhh, next client?” I replied, giving her a half-smile.

Jess looked at me quizzically as we allowed the question to disintegrate into the air. We had long since grown accustomed to folding words from two languages into an inelegant franglais origami, and this practice, while ultimately born out of laziness, really demonstrated how our brains had mutated over the course of one year living abroad.


La Dolce Vita

Fast-forward all these years later and I find that the great thing about working in a multinational environment is the ability to participate in this sort of word play. Everyday I hear families from other countries throwing mother tongue and English words around, effectively making language their personal self-designed Slinky. Words are important— grammar and content— but what I’m finding is that the longer that you live amongst multiple cultures, the less of an issue exactitude becomes. Other things matter more.

Last weekend I spent a fair amount of time traveling by car around the bottom of Italy’s boot heel. Italian friends had invited me to stay with them for a few days, and by accepting I was introduced to glowing sea caves and plates of long, twisted pasta. As a non-Italian speaking Yank who’s never been to these parts, the opportunity to spend time with good friends on their home turf felt like I’d struck gold. It was for this reason that I was taken aback when suddenly asked by one of them, “What is it like to be in a car full of Italians speaking English and hearing so many mistakes?”


I’m sorry, were you saying something?

Much like the car’s shade question (and I am now confident that this is the correct English term), I was left a bit lacking in finding a response. After a few moments I concluded that in this instance,  it was the question that I found to be incorrectly framed.

“Honestly, I don’t really notice when you guys making mistakes. I’m just grateful that you all speak English as my Italian is really quite horrible.”

I wasn’t trying to be polite by answering this way. It’s just that I’ve reached a point in my life where a strange kind of blended English has become my brain’s accepted norm. I know that my highly accomplished Sentence Power professor at Hopkins would roll his eyes at this statement, but I really believe that there’s a time and a place for each degree of linguistic correctness.

It's wrong. But in some ways it's so right.

It’s wrong. But in some ways it’s so right.

With the exception of my former professor, almost no one is a perfect speaker.  Me, I find myself losing English words frequently– and worse, sometimes I’ll reword English phrases so they sound like I’ve put myself through Google Translate. One ready example is that I’ve been known to say, “My schedule is too charged” when I mean to say that things are really busy.

My schedule is too charged? When on Planet America would I ever say something that? Answer: I wouldn’t.  But I would say it that way if I were speaking in French. It’s a very small and nuanced anecdote, but it shows how I’ve long since fallen head first into a bowl of alphabet soup. And I’m definitely not the only one who’s paddling around in here.

Our outdoor breakfast brought out some wasps, and with that another teaching opportunity.

Our outdoor breakfast brought out some wasps in search of honey, and with that another teaching opportunity.

I spent the bulk of last weekend listening carefully to the graceful acrobatics of the Italian language, and along the way I kept stopping my friends to ask for the English translation of certain items.  Uno vespa, for example, is Italian for a wasp. A vespa- just like the moped! Some words, once learned, become impossible to forget.

While all of this is great, I should acknowledge that part of me thinks that my aging brain shouldn’t waste precious headspace on cherrypicking words in a new language. These days I feel more inadequate than my 16GB iPhone, constantly loading new data and thus deleting old stuff because the device can’t hold it all at the same time. Maybe I should just work on fortifying my rusty French. Or maybe I should stick to English and therefore protect what memory circuits laid out way back in my formative years.  I really don’t know what the answer is. Like our application of common English, I really don’t think there is one perfect solution.

Words. Not always terribly important.

Come si dice, “wicked awesome sunrise?”

If nothing else, going on my brief trip to Apulia renewed my admiration for the many professionals and families carving a life outside of their native language. For me, working through London’s language fog is only sometimes challenging, but for others I can only imagine the process they go through in picking up new words each day. If nothing else, I’m willing to bet that the Brits have no word for that sun visor gadget at all.  There’s not much sun here to speak of, and at the end of the day they got their own separate repertoire of words that exist nowhere else.

Language can be maddening, but at the end of the day it is endlessly interesting.